Saturday, August 30, 2008

U.S. Vice Presidents

The 2008 race for President of the U.S. seems to have been going on since the Iron Age, but the race for Vice President just started yesterday - a race to hold an office that "isn't worth a bucket of warm piss" according one of its incumbents (John Nance Garner, V.P. under Franklin Roosevelt, 1933-1941).

This year's VP race seems like it might be interesting. We have a choice between a Democrat who has been in the Senate since I was born (Joe Biden's experience serving as a counterweight to Obama's image as the outsider coming to Washington with a fresh perspective on things) and a young, attractive Republican with a newcomer image (balancing McCain's 25 years of congressional experience). If the "experience" end of the ticket is what makes you tick (or rather, vote), your choice is pretty much a wash. If, however, you are more concerned with the "newcomer" end of the ticket, I think Sarah Palin may make a stronger case than Obama.

If Palin's slim record of public service scares you - 2 years as governor of Alaska, so far - at least she has also served two terms each as city councilwoman and mayor. It may be early days yet, too early to really tell if she can lead; but she has a reputation for upsetting the status quo after climbing into office over the bodies of two previous governors of Alaska and blowing the whistle on corruption within her own party. Her candidacy should scare the Democrats, though it might scare a lot of Republicans as well... but then, so might McCain's. There's no telling what direction they will steer the party - or whether Palin and McCain will really be able to work together at all.

But if they win, what a stunner it will be! In the very year in which Hillary Clinton came so very close to being nominated for President, a Republican may become the first woman to stand a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Which is just about all there is to say about the importance of the Vice Presidency.

Here's a little historical brush-up on the Vice Presidency for you.

The Vice President of the United States serves as the President of the Senate. In reality, this is mostly a ceremonial title. Most day-to-day Senate business is actually chaired by freshman Senators, supposedly to give them experience in legislative procedures, but most likely because it's hard, thankless, often boring work and they're at the bottom of the pecking order.

Many Vice Presidents have not had a good relationship with the President, so their influence in the cabinet was small. Cases like Garret Hobart (VP 1897-99), who wielded considerable power before his untimely death, are historically rare - though the last few Vice Presidents may have been among them. More often one hears of cases like Charles G. Dawes (1925-29), whose bitter feud with Pres. Coolidge gave the vice-presidency a very bad odor in its time; or like Thomas Marshall (1913-21), the first Vice President to be re-elected in 88 years, and the first since Daniel Tompkins (1817-25) to serve two full terms.

While serving under Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Marshall frequently made light of his office's insignificance. One gathers humor was his way of dealing with pain and humiliation, as Wilson went out of his way (even to the extent of changing a long-standing precedent of letting the VP serve as his go-between with the Senate) to neutralize Marshall's influence. Marshall could have exploited Wilson's disability, following the President's paralytic stroke in 1919, to take over the powers of the Presidency; but he refused to do so on principle. (From what I have read about Wilson's character, the same would not have happened if their situations had been reversed.)

Other than the chance of becoming President in the event of a vacancy in that high office, the only power the Vice President has is to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Wiki has a table showing how many tie-breaking votes each U.S. Vice President cast. These figures don't particularly make the Vice Presidency look like an important job. Of the last five Vice Presidents, Walter Mondale (1977-81) cast one tie-breaking vote; George H. W. Bush cast 7 of them in 8 years (1981-89); Dan Quayle (1989-93) never cast a single one; Al Gore (1993-2001) cast 4 tie-breakers in 8 years; and Dick Cheney's count currently stands at 8 tie-breakers since 2001. If he casts one more before his term runs out, Cheney will move up in the rankings to a tie for the seventh tie-breakingest VP in American history, ahead of any other Vice President since 1873. Averaging more than 1 tie-breaking vote per year is that unusual. So the tie-breaking function of the Vice Presidency is, practically speaking, about as useless as its role as President of the Senate and "second in command" to the President.

This narrows down the signifiance of the Vice Presidency to the possibility of succeeding to the Presidency in the event of the President's death, resignation, or disability. That has only happened nine times since 1789. For a while there seemed to be a tradition of having a presidential succession take place every 20 years or so; but we haven't had one since Ford succeeded Nixon in 1974. It's been 34 years since the Vice President had anything to do but hope, and hope in vain, that the unthinkable would happen and he would become President. No U.S. President has been assassinated in 45 years; none has died in office by natural means in 63 years. We might put this down to our nation's political parties, media, and voters doing a better job of vetting presidential prospects in terms of health risks; improvements in security; and the development of a culture whose sensitivity to political scandal has been deadened to the point that Bill Clinton faced impeachment and trial without blinking. Bringing down the President, as Nixon was brought down, will only get harder from here on out. Being the Vice President, therefore, will have fewer compensations.

But even that chance of becoming President isn't necessarily such a big deal. Consider some of the undistinguished men on whom that chance has fallen. Being on the list of U.S. Presidents has done little to raise them above the haze of obscurity covering most of our past Vice Presidents. Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Chester Arthur (who all succeeded a President who died in office) are just as forgettable as many of the Vice Presidents before and after them. Andrew Johnson's chief claim to fame, after succeeding the assassinated President Lincoln, is surviving his impeachment trial by a single vote.

No "accidental president" until Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) went on to be elected President in his own right. Some of them weren't even renominated by their own party, often having been nominated for Vice President as a backhanded insult, consigned to obscurity and impotence by a party that had no use for them, and then left off the ticket four years later by a party embarrassed by their unexpected elevation to the Presidency. Gerald Ford (appointed VP in 1973 to fill a vacancy caused by resignation, only to become President in 1974 by the same means) obtained, in his electoral defeat in 1976, the distinction of being the only U.S. president who was never elected either Pres. or VP. As time passes and the living memory of Ford's presidency passes away, he may become as hard to remember as Tyler, Fillmore, and Arthur.

One Vice President (William Wheeler, 1877-81) was such a nonentity that when the President-to-be heard that Wheeler had been nominated as his running mate, he said: "I am ashamed to say, who is Wheeler?" VP candidates were not routinely picked by their presidential running-mate until FDR chose Harry S Truman (1945) to second him as he ran for his fourth term in 1944; before that time, most presidential candidates had to make do with whomever the party foisted on them. By the time he came to run for re-election, however, a President was entitled to a certain veto-power when it came to Vice-Presidential nominees. This explains why some Vice Presidents didn't get renominated when the President they served with ran for another term. Vice Presidents dropped from their Presidents' reelection ticket, for whatever reason, include Aaron Burr (1801-05), Richard M. Johnson (1837-41), Hannibal Hamlin (1861-65), Schuyler Colfax (1869-73), Levi P. Morton (1889-93), John N. Garner (1933-41), Henry A. Wallace (1941-45), and Nelson A. Rockefeller (1974-77). Don't weep for them, though. The Presidents who sacked three of these VPs reaped what they sowed when the voters sacked them. Thus the tickets Ford-Dole (1976), Harrison-Reid (1892), and Van Buren-T.B.A. (1841) went down in flames.

Having served as Vice President is no guarantee of being elected President afterward. The only Vice Presidents who successfully ran for President while serving as Vice President were John Adams (1789-97), Thomas Jefferson (1797-1801), Martin Van Buren (1833-37), and George H. W. Bush (1981-89). Besides them, only Richard Nixon (VP 1953-61) won the Presidency in his own right without succeeding to that office first; though he failed in his first attempt at it in 1960. So, based on historical precedent, a Vice President Sarah Palin would be more likely to become our nation's first woman President by succession than by election.

Several Vice Presidents ran as major-party Presidential nominees but never won. Aaron Burr actually tied with Thomas Jefferson for President in 1800 at a time when the runner-up was made Vice President; it took 36 ballots in the House of Represenatives to decide the election in Jefferson's favor. Other Veeps and former Veeps who failed in their bid to become Prez include John C. Breckinridge (1857-61), Hubert Humphrey (1965-69), Walter Mondale (1977-81) and Al Gore (1993-2001), all of whom were Democrats. Many others tried and failed to be nominated as their party's presidential candidate. FYI, the Vice President named Adlai E. Stevenson (1893-97) was the grandfather of the later presidential candidate by the same name (1952, 1956).

Vice Presidents are also, apparently, transferrable commodities. Two Veeps - George Clinton (1805-12) and John C. Calhoun (1825-32) - stayed in office while the President changed. Calhoun antagonized both of his Presidents, playing an instrumental role in John Quincy Adams's reelection loss and later, under Andrew Jackson, becoming the first of two Vice Presidents to resign (Spiro Agnew [1969-73] - the epitome of a rapid rise and equally rapid fall in politics - being the other).

On the other hand, having a Vice President is not strictly necessary. In the absence of a Vice President, the President pro tempore of the Senate becomes its presiding officer. Only since the 25th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1965 has there been a procedure for appointing a replacement when a Vice President fails to complete his term. This procedure was used to appoint two consecutive Vice Presidents, Ford and Rockefeller (in 1973 and 1974 respectively). There have been 18 periods of vacancy in the Vice President's office since 1789. These periods include those following the deaths of Vice Presidents George Clinton (1812-13), Elbridge Gerry (1814-17), William R. King (1853-57), Henry Wilson (1875-77), Thomas A. Hendricks (1885-89), Garret Hobart (1899-1901), James S. Sherman (who died while running for reelection; 1912-1913), and the resignations of Calhoun (1832-33) and Agnew (2 months in 1973, before Ford was appointed in his palce). The remaining vice-presidential vacancies occurred when the incumbent Vice President succeeded to the Presidency, including the five months it took to get Rockefeller's appointment confirmed in 1974.

Some of the vice-presidential vacancies lasted nearly a whole term. The longest followed John Tyler's succession to the Presidency after William H. Harrison died one month into his term (April 4, 1841-March 3, 1845). Presupposing the same March 3 end date four years further on, similar almost-full-term vacancies occurred after the death of William King (April 18, 1853), the succession of Andrew Johnson (April 15, 1865), the succession of Chester Arthur (September 19, 1881), the death of Thomas Hendricks (November 25, 1885), and the succesion of Theodore Roosevelt (September 14, 1901). Since the FDR years, presidential and vice-presidential terms have begun and ended at noon on January 20, which is the date to compare to Harry S Truman's succession on April 12, 1945, again producing a nearly 4-year vacancy in the country's second-in-command post.

During these uneasy times, the first person in line of succession to the Presidency was sometimes the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (following the 1792 Presidential Succession Act), sometimes the Secretary of State (following the 1886 ditto), and most recently the Speaker of the House (since the 1947 ditto). Actually there is a whole line of succession behind the President: the Vice President, the Speaker, the President Pro Tem, and all the cabinet secretaries in order of the creation of their departments. The first in line to succeed the President has often been a member of the opposing party in Congress. To date, none of these rules have been called into play, though there have been close calls; for example, if one more Senator had voted to convict Andrew Johnson at his impeachment trial, President Pro Tem Benjamin Wade would have become President. Another close call came in 1844, when a gun exploded on a steamship carrying President Tyler (who had no Vice President). The explosion killed two members of his cabinet among others, including the father of a girl who fainted into the president's arms and, perhaps coincidentally, married him a few months later.

There has been one relatively recent improvement in the fortunes of the Vice President. The 25th Amendment allows the Vice President (or whoever is next ine line) to serve as "Acting President" during a time of the President's temporary disability. This clause has been invoked three times to date. In each instance, the President briefly transferred his powers to the Vice President while undergoing a colonoscopy. In this way George H. W. Bush was Acting President for a few hours in 1985, and Dick Cheney in 2002 and 2007. If McCain is elected, and if he continues having melanomas burned off his skin on a regular basis, VP Palin may pull some shifts as Acting President.

Speaking of presidential succession, Levi P. Morton blew his chance to become President. In 1880, when presidential candidate James Garfield invited him to run for Vice President on his ticket, Morton turned him down. Garfield got elected, then died six months after taking office, and Chester Arthur became president instead. Incidentlally, Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker who was after the very job - Minister to France - that Morton had accepted instead of Vice President. This could almost inspire one of those "chicken or egg" questions: Would Morton have become president in 1881 if he had accepted Garfield's first offer? Or would that circumstance have changed matters enough to save Garfield's life? Chances are good Guiteau would have shot Garfield regardless; he was, after all, completely bonkers and would never have gotten the job he believed he was owed. All the same, Morton accepted the next time he was invited onto a Prez-Veep ticket, served his four years, and retired to the obscurity to which former Vice Presidents are evidently entitled.

An aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said: "Once the election is over, the Vice President's usefulness is over. He's like the second stage of a rocket. He's damn important going into orbit, but he's always thrown off to burn up in the atmosphere." Thomas Marshall liked to joke about the two brothers, one of whom went to sea and the other became Vice President; neither was ever heard from again. Marshall also claimed: "Indiana is the mother of Vice Presidents, home of more second-class men than any other state." He was misinformed; 11 Vice Presidents have come from New York; Indiana comes in second place with 5 (compared to only one President from Indiana). Neither Delaware nor Alaska has had one yet. One of them is likely to have a Veep to its name a few months from now.

A major political party has only nominated a woman for Vice President once before (Geraldine Ferraro, Democrat, 1984). There have been other female presidential and vice-presidential candidates, however. Wiki this to find out more about them. As far as minorities, there isn't much to note; Charles Curtis (1929-33), who was half Native American, is the only U.S. Vice President to date descended from non-European stock; if he wins, Obama would be the first such President.

Wait, vote, and see what comes of this year's race for Vice President of the United States. Historically speaking, it might not end up mattering much. You can forget everything you know about our nation's Vice Presidents without suffering serious brain damage. But whoever does get elected - don't count him or her out. The historical odds may be stacked against Vice Presidents amounting to anything noteworthy, but they do have a chance - a chance to become somebody like Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. Or a chance to completely blow it, like Spiro Agnew. I have a feeling this year's Vice President-elect will be interesting to watch, one way or the other.

IMAGES: Left column from top: Adlai E. Stevenson I; William A. Wheeler; Thomas Marshall; Nelson A. Rockefeller; Richard Mentor Johnson; Henry A. Wallace; Levi P. Morton; Walter Mondale. Right column from top: Aaron Burr; James Sherman; Spiro Agnew; Schuyler Colfax; Hannibal Hamlin; John C. Calhoun; Charles G. Dawes; Daniel D. Tompkins; Charles Curtis.

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